By Brian Yauger
Tuesday began another new season for Youngstown State University women’s basketball, and the hopes and expectations are as high as ever.
Coming off a historic season that culminated with the Penguins’ third Women’s National Invitation Tournament appearance in school history, YSU returns many key players and adds many more.
Senior Mary Dunn and juniors Chelsea Olson and McKenah Peters all return to the team after making significant contributions last season. Amara Chikwe and Deleah Gibson are the two returning underclassmen and will have expanded roles as well.
“I’m so excited,” Dunn said about the season starting. “Since the last game, making it as far as we did to the WNIT, we’ve all just been really hungry to get back on the court and do even more this year. We want to make it past the WNIT and really get to the NCAA Tournament and Horizon League championship.”
Dunn is the lone senior on a relatively young Penguins team. She came in as a part of a larger class and is the only one left, which is something she wears as a badge of honor.
“I actually like being the only senior,” she said. “I came in with a lot more people, and just making it these four years really does mean something to me. I want to make sure that since it is just my legacy, that it’s the best one that it can be.”
Also returning to the fold is head coach John Barnes, who returns for his seventh year with the program. Over the summer, Barnes received a five-year contract extension that will carry him into the 2023-2024 season and is the coach with the second-most wins all-time in school history with 104 wins.
“It is a privilege to coach at Youngstown State, and the extended contract is great motivation to continue to work as hard as we can to bring a championship to YSU,” Barnes said at the time of the extension.
As for new faces, there’s several.
The Penguins welcome four players to the active roster from redshirts. Ny’Dajah Jackson and Emma VanZanten join the team after missing last season due to NCAA transfer rules, and Taylor Petit and Gabby Lupardus both missed last season due to injury.
With those new faces come the five “true” freshmen: Mady Aulbach, Quinece Hatcher, Maddie Schires, Lexi Wagner and Jen Wendler.
While not a new player, Peters will be shifting to a new role. After spending her first two seasons as a guard, Peters is going to transition up the court to playing in a forward position, something she’s embraced wholeheartedly.
“It’s different for sure, but whatever position coach puts me in I’m willing to play as long as I’m out on the court and helping my teammates as much as possible,” Peters said. “It’s going to be a very big learning experience. I learned that in my first scrimmage.”
The Penguins had a nine-player rotation last season compared to the 14 this season. Coaching with a much deeper bench provides advantages like keeping the players fresh, but Barnes’ approach starts with practice.
“It’s just going to depend on how the players practice going into each game,” Barnes said. “Those are the ones that are going to get the nod early on in terms of starting or right off the bench, and how they’re playing will depend how deep we go into the bench. Wins and losses, chemistry, playing together, all of those things.”
The Penguins won their opening matchup against Canisius College, with Olson recording the first triple-double for the program since 1986.